The United Methodist News Service is trying to figure out the “Emerging Church” movement. In two articles they explore the nature of these churches and discover that they contain quite a bit of variety. Not a great surprise. I’ve done some stuff with Emergent & its people in the past, so I’ll share from my own perspective.
Emergent Village defines itself as a “conversation.” They avoid dogmatism – either theological or ecclesiastical. Most of the people I’ve met (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Brad Cecil, etc.) come from an Evangelical background – think Bible Church, Reformed and Southern Baptist. To my evangelical United Methodist ears they sound like they could easily be taken as liberals by their communities of origin. Such a label would be mistaken, however. They have learned much from theologians with a postmodern tilt – Stan Grenz, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf. From my evangelical UM perspective, it sounds like they’re finally learning from the broader Christian tradition – and thus not all that new from our point of view. But to take the movement as solely or even primarily theological would be a mistake. It’s a conversation, not an institution. They’re not seeking power over anyone. Who is accepted as a conversation partner? In my experience they’re very open. As evangelicals they didn’t look at my United Methodism and reject me as hopelessly tainted with liberalism (as others have in the past). You can check out the conversation at their blog.
If Emegent has a bias, it is toward reaching the culture that has found American Christian culture irrelevant. This is where they rub a lot of their fellow evangelicals the wrong way. For modern evangelicals, the problem with modern culture is its atheism, its active rejection of Christian truth claims. From what the Emergent folk have seen, however, the question of truth has shifted from the theoretical to the pragmatic. Instead of facing moderns who hold to only one truth – knowing Christianity isn’t it – they face a new cohort who admit to many truths and seek to create their own path through the mess. In the midst of this creativity the Emergent folk hold to Jesus as the truth – not merely as the messenger of truth (in line with some forms of modern Christianity – and Mohammed in Islam) but as truth personified. Their passion to reach this generation has led them to where they are.
I like the Emergent people. They’re fun to be around. Most of my ministry, however, is in established churches with long term Christians. Most of the young people in my small town setting are at least nominal Christians. They take traditional ways of doing church as the way to go. So I’ve had less occasion to hang out with the Emergent folk than I would like. We’ll see what happens in the future (when I become an old geezer).